New Emergency Exit Signs for the Capitol — in Bronze

Posted November 9, 2007 at 6:23pm

Alongside the Capitol’s historic paintings, sculptures, tiles and bronze doors could soon come 127 new bronze fixtures: custom emergency exit signs.

The Architect of the Capitol officially put out a pre-solicitation notice last week seeking proposals to provide the signs, which would be situated throughout areas of the Capitol that are open to visitors. It’s part of an effort to ensure that Members, staffers and visitors can make their way to safety should a serious emergency strike Capitol Hill.

There are few current signs on the visitor levels in the Capitol to help evacuate people during an emergency, said Eva Malecki, an AOC spokeswoman.

But the AOC’s signage idea is fairly simple. If an emergency takes place, the signs would direct people inside the Capitol to the closest exit even if the lights go out elsewhere.

Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Administration Committee, noted that AOC officials have argued that this emergency lighting system is an important addition to the Capitol’s public-safety program.

The Office of Compliance and fire marshal also have urged officials to upgrade the fire- and life-safety features of the Capitol, Brady said. The new signs should help with that — while also ensuring that the Capitol still looks like the Capitol, according to Brady.

“I am told that the new system will be consistent with the historic nature and appearance of the Capitol,” he said. “I am supportive of any reasonable measure that enhances the safety of Members, staff and visitors in emergency situations.”

Preserving the historic nature and architectural features of the Capitol complex is a priority for the project, Malecki said. The signs already have been designed but will not be released publicly because the project is still out for bid and procurement sensitive, Malecki said.

And because the project is still in the procurement process, cost estimates for the lighting project have not been released by the AOC.

Cost clues can be found, however: Members provided $1 million for emergency exit signs and lighting projects in the legislative branch appropriations bill that passed by the House earlier this year. (The Senate version of the measure has not yet been passed in that chamber.)

The Architect is expected to post its full solicitation request on its Web site on Thursday. Responses are due by Dec. 10.

New lights aren’t the only thing helping to better prepare the Capitol for an emergency, Malecki noted. AOC officials have undertaken several additional fire- and life-safety projects over the past decade to help better secure the campus.

For example, the AOC removed revolving entrance doors, replacing them with doors equipped with panic hardware; put in sprinkler systems, smoke detectors and fire alarms across the Congressional campus; and installed public address systems and other communications systems, Malecki said.

“This is just a short list of things being done,” Malecki added.

Individual Congressional buildings often are evacuated because of false alarms or small incidents, such as the seven restroom fires that have been set in Senate restrooms since September.

The last major evacuation of the Capitol complex took place on May 11, 2005, when a small, two-seat aircraft accidentally entered into restricted airspace above the District of Columbia.

Capitol security officials enacted the most serious emergency evacuation procedures when the incident took place. Those officials estimated that they managed to get 10,000 to 15,000 people out of the Capitol complex within six minutes.

But concern about how best to get people out of the Capitol during an incident remains, and evacuation procedures have been at the forefront of much talk among Members who oversee the Congressional campus in recent months.

When the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch held its monthly Capitol Visitor Center oversight hearing in October, Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) urged AOC officials to install similar emergency lighting mechanisms in that facility.

Evacuation concerns also are at the heart of a debate over whether staff-led tours should continue once the CVC opens next fall.

Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse has recommended Capitol tour guides take control because they will be trained to help evacuate visitors during an emergency. According to the plan, staff would accompany visitors on the tour, stepping in to point out specific statues or parts of the Capitol.

But several dozen Members have publicly protested that recommendation, arguing that those tours provide an important connection to their constituents. An official tour policy has not yet been approved.